The card game "Carnival of Monsters" is the latest trick by cult author Richard Garfield, who launched a completely new genre in the 90s with the trading card game Magic the Gathering. His new work, which was published by Amigo Spiele in Germany, is again about cards, again about monsters, again about countries - but there are no fights. The following review reveals whether the idea still works and entertains.
The path from “Carnival of Monsters” from prototype to finished product was rocky. The first Kickstarter campaign, the card game should originally only appear on the US market and be financed through crowdfunding, was unsuccessful. The card game finally made it to market readiness - and it was even published in German by Amigo Spiele.
Lots of monsters, lots of countries - no battles
The card game for two to five players is completely competitive, but there is no fighting. The fact that this game was penned by Richard Garfield - the author who created the genre of trading card games with his idea in the XNUMXs - will be noticed by those familiar with the scene at first glance. Equipped with a high pile of cards, the players go on a search for monsters: they play different colored countries to meet resource requirements and place monsters on the game table as soon as the required number is reached. The basic game system clearly identifies “Carnival of Monsters” as Garfield's creation.
What is also noticeable is the game's excellent features. Much of what is in the game box would not necessarily have been needed to play "Carnival of Monsters" as the rules provide. Nevertheless, you don't want to miss any of the material components, because the title gains a lot of atmosphere through it. Although "Carnival of Monsters" is a pure card game, the creators manage to give the monster collection real board game character. It starts with setting up the menagerie and ends with distributing the player boards.
There is also a brief background story to the "Carnival of Monsters". As budding scientists of the Royal Monstrological Society, the players go on a monster hunt and try to catch the most impressive creatures possible from different countries. Their catches are then examined by the audience in the menagerie. As always with such public events, the bigger the presentation, the louder the applause.
When the monster fans freak out in their seats, players receive appropriate recognition - at “Carnival of Monsters” in the form of points. That’s what Richard Garfield’s card game is all about. It turns out to be a visually inviting hunt for points.
Optics are good, fun is better
The look is actually a highlight and one of the strengths of "Carnival of Monsters". The map drawings come not from one, but from several well-known illustrators: Dennis Lohausen, Claus Stephan, Franz Vohwinkel, Loic Billiau, Martin Hoffmann, Oliver Schlemmer and Michael Menzel. The creative minds behind the card game did at least part of their homework with flying colors.
As it is well known that good looks alone are not enough, the playfulness should also be right so that Richard Garfield's idea can turn into an entertaining game. Mechanically, Garfield relies on a simple draft mechanism. The players are given eight cards at the beginning of each round (so-called seasons). All cards must then be drafted and played over the course of a total of four game rounds.
The trick is that you have to make a decision about the use of the card immediately after every draft: either a card is played immediately or you keep it for later, which, however, costs a fee. Because financial resources are finite, the decision is sometimes not as easy as it seems at first glance. In the course of the game, players collect the countries they need or, conversely, choose their monsters accordingly. Alternative strategies bring employees and immediate actions into play. There are also target cards - these only develop their value when the points are finally awarded.
One game, many decisions
The fundamental decision is always: Do I keep collecting lands to play dangerous and point-earning creatures or do I collect expensive monsters in the hope of getting the resources I need?
A sensible strategy often emerges in the course of the rounds, but not always. Sometimes luck does not play along and the drafted cards turn out to be useless: then even simple tactics do not work and the audience is silent during the monster show - there are only a few points. With "Carnival of Monsters", whether a strategy could prove to be effective is ultimately a matter of experience, in other words, of knowing the cards.
With around 200 cards there is a lot to choose from, and you keep discovering new creatures. Even after several games. The fact that new visual stimuli are constantly being set due to the variety of cards is unmistakably one of the strengths of “Carnival of Monsters”. The fact that this can also result in new tactical approaches ensures motivation in the medium term.
At the end of each round, the action is loosened up with a little twist: some monsters, especially those that bring massive points, have danger symbols. These dangers must be intercepted by the players so that the monster does not break out of its cage. You can use tokens for this, and a die roll determines how many symbols each player can also fend off. Then the played creatures wander into the menagerie and remain there until the final points are awarded. This goes on for four rounds, then a game of "Carnival of Monsters" ends and the points are counted. The player with the most points wins.
Carnival of Monsters: Not innovative, but fun
The card game does a lot right, but Richard Garfield's latest creation is not a creative explosion in the end. Nevertheless: A game of “Carnival of Monsters” puts you in a good mood. The mechanisms interlock well, the gameplay works in a calm way. The drafting itself is not very innovative and known from other titles (7 Wonders).
Despite the immense variety of cards, the entry barriers are low. This is also what defines “Carnival of Monsters”. It doesn't take a lot of preparation or a lot of patience to get into the first game. The appeal of several games is noticeable, especially because each round can actually look different. The monster hunt is not playfully demanding, but it is always entertaining and exciting due to the many decision-making options.
In the end, it's always about getting the best possible result from the pool of cards available for the respective game. This also applies because not only is the choice of cards limited, but the money available is also limited. If you need more financial resources, you have to take out loans, which at the end of the game lead to penalties, but can also be used as part of a strategy.
Despite the card draft, "Carnival of Monsters" only plays interactively in a few situations. Players have to swap cards regularly, but otherwise they manage their resources side by side and leisurely develop their strategies.
A weakness of the game also emerges directly from the drafting: “Carnival of Monsters” is only really entertaining with at least three players. There is a variant for the classic duel to compensate for missing players and the special rules also serve their intended purpose well, but the human decisions of other players drive the game fun far better than an additional impersonal draw pile. Yes, “Carnival of Monsters” works for two, but it is better to bring one or two other players to the table.
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Number of players: 2 to 5 players
Age: from 12 years
Playing time: 30 to 45 minutes
Long-term motivation: medium
Publisher: Amigo Spiele (German version)
Author Richard Garfield
Graphics: Dennis Lohausen, Claus Stephan, Franz Vohwinkel, Loic Billiau, Martin Hoffmann, Oliver Schlemmer, Michael Menzel
Year of publication: 2019
Cost: 35 Euro
As a long-time Magic lover, it was great to finally get a “real Garfield” back on the gaming table. Even the first impression was convincing: the optical brilliance of “Carnival of Monsters” picked us up and motivated us for the first game. It's fun to look at the cards and so that something of this motivator remains in the long term, we refrain from simply leafing through all the cards - so there is always something new to discover. There is a lot going on on the table anyway, due to the structure. The menagerie is full of coins, cards, dice and tokens - great!
The monstrous draft card game gets you started quickly. The set of rules is straightforward, and the editorial work-up was successful. The first drafts are completed quickly and the fear of loss is always a factor. Choosing something at “Carnival of Monsters” always means making a decision against something else. You can't save everything as a player and so you try round by round to make a selection that you are satisfied with.
The more experience you gain, however, the more obvious are possible strategic decisions, including about which source will probably get the most points at the end of the game. The predictions don't always come true, the drafted cards are too uncertain, but that is exactly what makes up part of the appeal. "Carnival of Monsters" is not a playful sensation, but a card game with a solid, functioning mechanism that does not make any major mistakes. The game entertains, creates frustration and joy and repeatedly prompts decision-making. The decisions are also influenced by the seasonal goals on display: sometimes monsters from the waterlands grant bonuses, sometimes other countries are the focus of lucrative strategies.
All actions are embedded is the knowledge that every game game is tightly limited and finite. Four rounds are played, players can optimize for four rounds, then it's definitely over. That is a good thing, because it turns “Carnival of Monsters” into a manageable card game that not only encourages decision-making, but also makes it necessary.